The tough cookie we’ve been waiting for

| 02 May 2016 | 12:23

When Gina Flores saw the little girl in a Humans of New York photo, standing in the middle of a city street “with this tough cookie energy,” she knew she had her heroine. She e-mailed the photo to her illustrator, Joann Wells Greenbaum. Greenbaum got to work creating Faith.

Faith shows up on page one of Faith and the Fragrance Fairy in yellow rain boots and a print dress over striped long johns. “She was very wise for her years,” but adults tended to pat her on the head and ignore her because she was just a kid. So begins a magical quest to save the city – a smoggy urban center that might be future-forward New York, Los Angeles or Japan – by bringing back the flowers and trees.

When Flores sat down to write, she didn’t have a children’s book in mind. Initially, she thought she’d write about how to teach aromatherapy to children. That’s what she does for a living, after all; she owns a massage therapy practice in midtown Manhattan. But did she have anything new to add to that conversation?

“Every culture talks about all of these things we do that impact seven generations forward? That’s what I was thinking about,” said Flores. She and Greenbaum are talking with Dirt over tea at a café in Milford, PA, where both women live. “What do I leave behind and how do I impact the future? I just don’t want to be the person that was here and consumed and left.”

“I sat for a very long time,” said Flores. “What was my story?”

Scenes from people-watching in the city came to her: distracted parents — or, more likely, nannies — on their phones, disconnected from their kids. Ten-year-old boys calling 10-year-old girls “ho.” Cranes on every building top, high-rises getting higher at a frantic pace. The street where she works? “Literally what it feels like now is Death Valley or the Grand Canyon.”

Then there were the experiences from Flores’ own life. As the child of concentration camp survivors, Flores grew up taking care of her parents and feeling like she had to have all the answers. (Faith opens the door to magic by asking for help.) With her café con leche skin, tight curls and green eyes, Faith is the daughter of a mixed-race family, like Flores’ own.

“I want us to be muttified,” Flores said, “the less possible to hate one another.” The mixed family may be the reason the book was turned down by a publisher, but they were okay with self-publishing. The idea wasn’t to make lots of money, but to share the story.

What Flores didn’t want to do was preach, as she admits can be her tendency. Her daughter, a ballerina, advised her to “go forth in a gentle way,” Flores laughed.

For that light touch, Flores thought of Greenbaum, whose art already graced the walls of Flores’ office; they had traded artwork for massage. There was a playful intelligence to Greenbaum’s work, and she happened to be a Buddhist, so Flores “knew she’d understand the yin and yang, dark and light. It’s just a children’s book but…”

Greenbaum loved the story’s granddaughter-grandfather connection. She said yes. And she had experience with fairies, it turned out. When her sons were young, her family had lived completely off grid – no water, no electricity – in Virginia. Every day, the boys would visit the “elf log,” where the “elves” would leave notes: instructive ones, of course, on all sorts of life lessons.

Those boys are grown into artists themselves now, and those elves have been reincarnated into Peppermint, Lemon, Lavender and Pine, the fragrance fairies who help a girl change the world — and, while they’re at it, introduce kids to some aromatherapy basics.